412J: Jazz and American Literature


Dr. Hefner 3 credits

          Often thought of as “America’s classical music,” jazz exerts a powerful influence over how we think about American culture. Whether it names an era (the Jazz Age) or becomes the foundation of a theory of African American culture, jazz has provided a soundtrack to much of 20th century American literary and cultural history. This course examines the crosscurrents between jazz and American literature from the earliest decades of the 20th century through the nostalgic turn in the 1990s. We will listen to a great deal of music, watch a number of films and clips that engage jazz either implicitly or explicitly, and think about how an aural form like jazz exerts influence on written texts. Questions that will drive our investigations include: Can jazz be “written”? What is the significance of cross-racial borrowing or appropriation in the jazz aesthetic? What does it mean to write during the “Jazz Age”? How does one narrate a jazz experience? How have the shifting fortunes of jazz (from the “devil’s music” to popular phenomenon to subculture to “classical”) been represented in various cultural forms? And, most importantly, what does it mean to study jazz in the literature classroom?

          In addition to a significant amount of listening and a handful of films and film clips, authors that may appear on the syllabus include James Weldon Johnson, Vachel Lindsay, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Sidney Bechet, George & Ira Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, and Toni Morrison.

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